Deadly peace mission: Delta community deserted, DHQ orders probe as 15 soldiers’ bodies recovered

17th March 2024

Many residents of the Okuama in the Ughelli South Local Government Area and Okolaba in the Bomadi Local Government Area of Delta State, on Friday, fled the communities as soldiers took over the area and reportedly set some houses ablaze in reaction to the killing of 16 soldiers, including senior officers.

Channels Television reported late on Saturday that 15 bodies of the soldiers were recovered by soldiers of the Joint Task Force under the supervision of the General Officer Commanding 6 Division, Nigerian Army, Major General Jamal Abdussalam, at the Okuama community.

Some of the recovered corpses had their heads severed off, while the stomachs of others were ripped off with some of the vital organs missing.

At the NDDC jetty in the community, the bodies of the commanding officer and two Majors were seen floating by the river bank as others were separated on land.

Meanwhile, the entire communities in the Bomadi and Ughelli South local government areas were cordoned off by troops of the 6 Division, Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, who also oversees the 63 brigade in Asaba.

The neighbouring communities have been engaged in a communal land dispute since January 27, 2024 when some youths from Okoloba were said to have ambushed and killed three Okuama youths, Igho Meshack, Godspower Awusa and Okiemute Agbabuleke, over an age-long land dispute in the area as they were returning from Okwagbe.

The corpses of the deceased were said to have been hidden by the assailants.

Some Okuama youths on Wednesday reportedly ambushed one Mr Anthony Aboh, an indigene of Okoloba, and held him hostage.

The Chairman of the Okoloba community alerted the Divisional Police Officer, Bomadi Police Division, the Joint Task Force, the Department of State Service, and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps.

It was learnt that the JTF swiftly swung into action and moved to Okuama to rescue the hostage.

However, the aggrieved youths of Okuama, on sighting the JTF personnel, allegedly opened fire on them at the waterfront and killed two soldiers with some others missing.

The situation degenerated to a gun duel between the youths and the military, leading to some soldiers sustaining severe bullet wounds.

In the ensuing melee, some of the soldiers reportedly managed to escape with the two wounded soldiers, who are said to be presently recuperating in an undisclosed hospital in Bomadi.

The Commanding Officer of 3 Battalion, Effurun, and Commanding Officer, 181 Amphibious Battalion, Agbor, could not be reached for comments as of the time of filing this report.

When contacted, the Police Public Relations Officer in the state, DSP Bright Edafe, stated, “The Delta State Police Command is not aware of the incident.”

However, the Nigerian Army confirmed the killing of its officers and men, whom it noted were on a peace mission in the Okuama community.

In a statement by the acting Director, Defence Information, Brigadier General Tukur Gusau, the Army said the commanding officer of the 181 Amphibious Batallion, two Majors, one Captain and 12 soldiers lost their lives.

The statement read in part, “The troops of the 181 Amphibious Batallion, Bomadi Local Government Area of Delta State, while on peace mission to Okuama community in the Bomadi LGA of Delta State, were surrounded by some community youths and killed on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The unfortunate incident occurred when the troops responded to a distress call regarding the communal crisis between the Okuama and Okoloba communities, both in Delta State.

“The reinforcement team led by the commanding officer was also attacked, leading to the death of the commanding officer, two Majors, one Captain and 12 soldiers.

“The Chief of Defence Staff, General Christopher Gwabin Musa, has directed the immediate investigation and arrest of those involved in the heinous crime. The occurrence has been reported to the Delta State Government.”

 Gusau added that the military remained focused and committed to its mandate of maintaining peace and security in the country, adding that some arrests had been made, while steps were being taken to unravel the motive behind the attack.

Community under siege

Sunday PUNCH gathered that troops had placed the Okuama community under siege as soldiers were said to have set fire on houses during which no fewer than three young men lost their lives.

One of our correspondents gathered that several residents of the community suffered life-threatening injuries, many of the women and children displaced in the ensuing melee had yet to be accounted for as of the time of filing this report.

When Sunday PUNCH correspondent attempted to visit the warring communities, he was turned back by stern looking and heavily armed soldiers, who had taken over the roads.

‘Soldiers carrying out genocide’

Speaking to journalists from his hideout, the Vice President-General of Okuama Community, Mr David Akata, expressed displeasure with “the lackadaisical approach of the state government and security operatives to quell the crisis between the two communities initially.”

“We entered into a peace accord with the state government and security operative in the state, and we stand by that accord, but often times the Okoloba people harass and assault our people. Our pleas to the state government to expedite action and caution the Okoloba leaders fell on deaf ears. Rather, they aided the Okoloba community and used their mercenaries to attack and kill our people,” he stated.

Akata also called on President Bola Tinubu; Delta State Governor, Sheriff Oborevwori; the National Assembly, Amnesty International and the United Nations to urgently intervene and reprimand the military personnel, whom he accused of carrying out acts of genocide, from annihilating the people.

He said, “Some armed men in military uniform invaded the community in the early hours of March 14, 2024, with a gunboat.

“The gunmen arrived in the community around 8am and started shooting at anyone in sight, thus leaving three killed while several victims injured are currently receiving treatment in a hospital in the state.

“Troops suspected to be men of the Nigerian Army on Friday, March 15, 2024, while chanting war songs, carried out what could be termed genocide on the innocent citizens of the community by setting their buildings ablaze.”

Another youth from Okuama, who did not want his name in print said, “Our people woke up on Wednesday to see our community surrounded by men in military uniform numbering over 60, and without provocation, they started shooting and caused the death of three promising youths of the community with several others sustaining gunshot injuries.

“The same military men repeated their genocide actions on innocent and law-abiding citizens of the Okuama community on Friday, March 15, 2024, bringing many buildings to rubble. As I speak, the number of persons who died in the barbaric attack cannot be ascertained as many aged men, women and youths fled into the nearby bushes and we suspect that some women and children might have drowned, because many ran into the river out of panic.”

A leader of the Okoloba, who begged to remain anonymous because of the tense situation, accused the Okuama people of being the aggressor and called on the federal and state governments as well as security agencies to beef up security in the communities to prevent an escalation of the crisis.

He also confirmed that many residents of Okolaba had fled the community for fear of reprisal from the military and the Okuama youths, adding that he was speaking from his hideout.

When contacted for a reaction, the Special Adviser to the President on Information and Strategy, Mr Bayo Onanuga, acknowledged the severity of the incident. However, he declined to comment, saying the Presidency would issue an official statement on the incident soon.

Similarly, the Chief Press Secretary to the Delta State Governor, Mr Festus Ahon, directed our correspondent to the Commissioner for Information, Dr Ifeanyi Osuoza. However, the commissioner did not his calls and had yet to reply a message sent to his mobile telephone as of the time of filing this report.

Senators call for calm

The senator representing Delta Central Senatorial District at the National Assembly, Ede Dafinone, has called on those involved in the ongoing carnage at to “sheath their swords for the sake of humanity.”

He also called on the federal and state governments “to urgently intervene to de-escalate the crisis.”

The call was contained in a statement issued by Dafinone in Warri on Saturday.

Dafinone while reacting to reports of the death of the soldiers, three Okuama community youths and the alleged burning of properties in Okuama, described the incidents as “very unfortunate.”

While sympathising with the military over the loss of its officers and men, he called on the Army to “observe the military rules of engagement while dealing with civilians.”

He also called on the leaders and the people of Okuama to remain calm and urged the government to “expedite action to arrest the ugly situation from degenerating into another humanitarian crisis”.

The statement read in part, “I want to appeal for calm by the warring factions in the unfortunate incident that occurred in the Okuama community in the Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State on Thursday and Friday, leading to the needless death of about 18 persons including soldiers.

“The Federal Government must, as a matter of urgency, set up a high-powered independent panel to investigate the remote causes of this crisis in order to bring whoever that may be involved in the killing of Nigerian civilians and soldiers to book.

“I wish to appeal to the authority of the Nigerian Army to act discreetly in this situation; they should not allow their emotions take better part of their professional judgment by toning down their operations and observe the rules of engagement while dealing with civilians at Okuama.

“I also wish to call on our people in Okuama to shun any act of violence that could further escalate this crisis, which could have been avoided if both parties allowed reason to prevail.”

Similarly, the senator representing the Delta North Senatorial District in the National Assembly, Ned Nwoko, condemned the loss of lives on the part of the military and the communities, and appealed to the military not to use the tragedy to descend on the communities and inflict pain on innocent people.

He told one of our correspondents on the telephone on Saturday, “The military should identify the culprits after a thorough investigation. They should not descend on the entire communities and molest innocent citizens. They should not invade the state or the communities. I want to particularly beg them not to treat anyone like criminals, but they should be circumspect.

“It is a tragedy and a national one for that matter. The killings should be condemned. Killings in Nigeria are unbearable. Just two weeks ago, some policemen were abducted in the same state and five bodies were recovered. What is happening is not something we should gloss over. It is sad that killings in Katsina, Zamfara and Plateau states are now spreading to the southern part of the country.”

Attempts to get the reaction of the member representing the Bomadi/Patani Federal Constituency of Delta State in the House of Representatives, Nicholas Ebomo, were unsuccessful. Calls to his mobile telephone were unanswered while messages sent to him via WhatsApp were not acknowledged.

Ex-soldiers, others react

Reacting to the development, a security consultant and defence strategist, Col. Hassan Stan-Labo (retd.), said there was a need for the military to investigate the incident to ascertain what happened.

He added that although the military had become civilised compared to past years when retaliations would be carried out on the communities, the perpetrators would in no time be brought to justice.

He said, “There was a communal clash and of course the military was called upon and they were responding before the unfortunate incident that happened. The military will now have to investigate it to ascertain the actual position of things and that will show the way forward as to what line of action to take.  We don’t foresee any retaliation on the part of the military. That was in the past and today we don’t do that.

 “The military is more civilised today and it’s just that the youth involved definitely will pay for it. There are no two ways about it. Community leaders who took sides, engineered, and in one way or the other contributed, provoked or assisted it in any form or shape will pay for it.”

The Chairman, Rivers State Coalition of Civil Society Organisations, Enefaa Georgewill, said, “The underlining factor should be understudied. Some have linked the attack to IPOB while some others have linked it to criminal gangs. But most of these crises are fallouts of the issues in the country. The government should wake up and begin to answer the fundamental questions of poverty, educational, economic, and food crises, among several others.

“My plea to the civilians is that we must know that soldiers are part of us. They are human beings like us. These soldiers have parents and children. We will call for calm and the military should act professionally and not allow the situation to degenerate to a killing spree.

The National Publicity Secretary of the Ijaw National Congress, Ezonebi Oyakemeagbegha, said, “It’s very unfortunate that civilians will kill military personnel. It is such a sad story but we are appealing to the soldiers to act professionally. As much as we condemn the killing of soldiers, we appeal that they should handle the situation professionally.”

SOURCE:PUNCH

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